Omnigroup detail the importance of collaboration within their multidisciplinary design practice
Found in the Swiss, French-speaking city of Lausanne, Omnigroup is home to the graphic output of Leonardo Azzolini and Simon Mager. The collaborative duo operate fluidly across multiple disciplines, with a particular eye for identity and book design, as well as typefaces through the ever-evolving Omnitype. We caught up with them both to find out more about their work, views and future plans.
EM How would you describe what you do at Omnigroup?
OG Omnigroup is the shared graphic design practice of Leonardo Azzolini and Simon Mager based in Lausanne, Switzerland. Since the beginning, collaborative work plays a big role for our studio and we always liked working with other graphic and type designers as well as developers from Switzerland and abroad.
We are mainly working in the field of print and web design with a strong focus on visual identities, books and editorial design. Our work is very much driven by our interest in typography and type design. Over the last years, we developed an internal catalogue of typefaces at different stages that often serve as a starting point for our collaborations, often leading to customised fonts for a specific purpose. Our approach to graphic design is very much content-driven and our relationship with our collaborators plays a big role in how we work. We like to leave some space for a certain rawness in both our type and graphic design work, trying to find a balance between control and improvisation. A couple of months ago we moved with the studio to a bigger space, a former grocery store, which we share with other designers, a researcher and a young curator.
Currently, we are developing a visual identity for a Swiss literature foundation for whom we also drew a serif family with the help of Dávid Molnár. We’re involved in the project for over a year and it spans from a rather big website to all kinds of printed matter for institutional communication as well as signage on site. Next to that, we have been working on a new website for the Milan-based architecture studio Space Caviar, which’s run by Joseph Grima. This should launch over the summer.
Our relationship with our collaborators plays a big role in how we work.
EM What qualities (or differences!) make the pair of you well together?
OG We are first and foremost friends on a non-work-related level and also spend time together doing other activities than discussing projects in front of the screen. That’s probably the most important factor for why we like to work together. Over the course of the last few years, we found a nice rhythm and that came pretty naturally from one project to the next. As opposed to the beginning years, where we had a tendency to want to work on all projects equally, we now tend to separate work more and more between us. This makes everything much easier and also more progressive. We sit next to one another in the studio most of the time so we constantly exchange over the projects we are working on and discuss a lot about conceptual decisions or questions of form and materiality. This exchange is really crucial and kind of fundamental for our way of working. When it comes to meetings with the clients we are commonly both present and it’s a sort of ping pong game with our collaborators.
EM What were your backgrounds prior to starting the studio?
OG Before we met in Lausanne, Leonardo studied graphic and industrial design in Venice and Simon in the South of Germany before entering the art direction programme here at ECAL. We both learned drawing type under the teaching of Swiss type designer François Rappo. After graduation, we became assistant teachers in the then newly developed Type Design Master at ECAL. In the same year, 2016, we founded Omnigroup with our friends Frederik Mahler-Andersen and Luke Archer with whom we continue to collaborate on various projects. We all shared a studio in a former art space in the city called Harpe45 and started working together on some commissions. One of our first projects was organising a small non-institutional pop-up school called Parallel School that included a week-long workshop with other students and designers from Switzerland and abroad. We also had a small lecture series to which we invited Roland Früh, Nina Paim and Corrine Gisel, François Rappo and many others to talk. Interestingly we met many people during that week with whom we crossed paths or worked together later on.
We have a very ambivalent relationship with Instagram.
EM You show lots of work on Instagram but not on your website – is that an intentional choice?
OG You’re touching a bit upon a topic here. We have a very ambivalent relationship with Instagram. On the one hand, it’s a very spontaneous and intuitive way of showing what you’re working on. But it’s also the epitome of a kind of bulimic and superficial approach to content within social media platforms which we completely disagree with – to a point that makes us want to delete the app sometimes. We also don’t like to be dependent on a major corporation’s arbitrary algorithm and yet it is a simple tool to showcase our work at least a little bit to a broader audience. The main reason for not having a website is simply that we didn’t find time to do one yet. It’s the same thing for our type publishing venture Omnitype. We get quite a lot of requests from other designers that would like to test our typefaces and handle this all manually without a website. On the other hand, we sometimes think not having an online presence also creates a certain threshold and people who really want to work with us specifically just ask us for a portfolio. We do plan on putting a small portfolio site online in the course of 2021. Fingers crossed!
You have to let go and develop a bit of an easiness or generosity towards your work.
EM How did you come to work with Dinamo on your ABC Walter typeface?
OG We met Fabian and Johannes during our time as teaching assistants at ECAL for the first time and became friends with them. With Fabian, we also share a secret addiction to second-hand furniture from Anibis and Tutti (a sort of Swiss eBay). Johannes, we catch up with, whenever we manage to get to Berlin and exchange silly pictures in the meantime.
The Walter project started out of our shared interest in the lettering manuals of Swiss designer and teacher Walter Käch. Fabian had actually done a custom font for a visual identity project for Kunsthalle Zürich designed by Dan Solbach way back in 2014 and we have come to know Käch through François Rappo who brought the lettering manuals to the classroom during our time as students. It had already raised our attention back then as the letterings carry many of the characteristics of the early Swiss grotesks in them. Käch was a teacher of Adrian Frutiger and you can definitely feel some of his drawing style surfacing in Univers.
In 2018 we were approached by a small museum in Germany which asked us to redesign their visual identity and we used an old sketch based on a tracing of Käch’s Röntgentherapie (X-ray Therapy ;)) font as a starting point for a custom typeface.
In the meantime, Fabian had found another less known lettering manual of Käch in a second-hand book store in Basel which he showed us. The collaboration with Dinamo was then just a natural next step and we decided to merge our work into a larger family including ABC Walter Alte, a selection of three, true-to-the-source revival cuts and ABC Walter Neue, an adaptation and synthesis of Käch’s work into a larger multi-weight family. The font will surface slowly during the course of this year and was used recently by Actual Source for a redesign of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art’s identity.
EM Designing a typeface over a relatively long period of time, especially such a large family, how do you know when it’s finished and ready to be released?
OG That’s probably one of the major challenges that all type designers are facing. A typeface is never finished and you can always correct something here and there, or polish the curve of some obscure glyph that might never be used by anyone.
But at some point, you have to let go and develop a bit of an easiness or generosity towards your work. This moment when you think, now I have to stop, probably comes at a different point for everybody and in our case, it helps a lot to have another pair of fresh eyes looking at your typeface once in a while. Most of the time we sketch something really quickly and also like using a rough and not overly polished version of a typeface. We also give out files of early stages for friends to use and test. But when the typeface really has to function as a tool independently it’s good to run as many tests and proofs as possible in order to avoid issues in the future.
We like to keep it rather simple generally but also don’t want to be boring or bored ourselves.
EM What’s the most underrated part of designing a book?
OG In our case, it often is the editing process of the book. We work a lot with artists and architects and many of the publications start with a tonne of unsorted pictures, sketches and renderings scattered over different hard drives in high and low res – sometimes terribly low res – quality pictures and unedited text. Selecting and sorting the content and defining a sequence is probably the most fundamental part of designing a book (or any other medium?) and at the same time often pretty much invisible to the reader when he flips through the pages.
EM How about the most challenging?
OG Hmm… probably the same answer above. Once we dive through the content and get an idea of how to structure the rhythm, the layout comes mostly quite naturally. We like to derive one or two simple but radical design principles from the content that serve as a guideline for the design. That can be anything from the format, image treatment, grid, typography to the materiality or the binding of the book. It’s always a challenge to find these little principles and to keep the balance between under and over designing a project. We like to keep it rather simple generally but also don’t want to be boring or bored ourselves.
Over the past years, we have also encountered all kinds of production issues and became more and more finicky about the different steps in production by testing materials, printing dummies, getting wet proofs etc. Even though there are always small surprises when the book is on press, this also makes the process more natural and spontaneous. Sometimes these surprises or problems make you find solutions that you didn’t think about.
It’s kind of fascinating how the idea of the ‘Swiss Style’ continues to be a topic.
EM What’s the creative culture like in Lausanne?
OG Lausanne is a rather small and laidback town. It’s at the shore of Lake Geneva facing Evian in France. Despite the size, it has a pretty vivid cultural scene not least due to the local art school ECAL that organises a lot of lectures and invites international guests. There are a lot of small artist-run spaces like Silicon Malley and a couple of bigger museums of photography and contemporary art.
But to be honest, what we particularly enjoy here is the landscape around Lausanne. The city is surrounded by mountains which give you a particular notion of scale and remind you to take time off the screen sometimes. When it’s nice out we tend to prefer going out for a hike, cycle or taking a dip in the lake over a museum visit.
EM What are your views on traditional Swiss design? Is there any pressure for Swiss studios to fit in with it?
OG It’s kind of fascinating how the idea of the ‘Swiss Style’ continues to be a topic although this design tradition has now been internationalised for many decades. In regards to the design approach of the Swiss modernists, there are surely many things we can relate to. We like a content driven and rather rational approach, although we definitely think that it can also quickly become a mechanically executed recipe which might feel overly dogmatic.
We never felt pressure or an urge to do anything, to be honest. It probably comes down to the personal preference of everyone in the end and nowadays there are so many coexisting bubbles that we think there is a place for everyone to feel comfortable in. During our education here we were never told to design something in a particular way. We often have the feeling that the French-speaking part of Switzerland is also a bit more influenced by France or maybe even Italy?
TBI Omnigroup, Omnitype… what’s next?
OG Right now we are trying to be hobby gardeners, as our studio has these large South facing shop windows that let in tonnes of light. Our studio mate Joelle is heavily invested in our newly established vegetable garden just behind the studio. We hopefully find some time doing some work there too. We also built a lot of our own furniture lately and have a couple of ideas for some future objects we want to build.
But the biggest ongoing project is surely Omnitype. We would love to extend and finish a lot of our typefaces. There are a couple of families that are waiting to be finished and finally published. We are also thinking about how to distribute the typefaces in order to facilitate everything and make them accessible to a wider public. Currently, we are finetuning a lot of work but we also don’t want to rush things too much. As we are a relatively small structure, things just go at their own pace but we feel like that’s a good thing.